With the exception of a couple of games, the entire SEC appears to be taking a week to enjoy some cupcakes. And while that certainly makes for a very dull SEC Saturday for most, there is at least one big matchup that promises to be a major throw-down.
For those keeping score, last week I went 7-3. This brings my abbreviated season total to a decent-but-not-spectacular 14-5.
As always, I start from the earliest kickoff times first...
South Carolina at Arkansas: Two weeks ago, I would have said this would be a great game with two improving teams. However, that was before the Hogs got roasted by the Rebs and the Vols plucked the Gamecocks. Now it looks like a game between two teams that are dazed and confused and desperately seeking a clue.
Last week I predicted that the Vols would get the win, but that SC's defense would make it a tough game. Well, I guess the SC defense forgot to get on the bus for that trip. Now to add to their misery, they lost one of their better DE Cliff Matthews for the season. They will be replacing him with a freshman.
This is important, because in order for the Gamecocks to beat the Hogs, they have to get pressure on QB Mallett. Now they will have to really depend on Eric Norwood to get the rush from the outside. I think this is going to end up putting a lot of extra pressure on a young secondary.
On the other hand, the Hogs have not exactly been a cement-wall on defense. Good news for them is that they are facing a Stephen Garcia offense that is, well, offensive. Other words that come to mind are inept, ineffective, and inconsistent. I think the Razorbacks find a way to win this one.
Tennessee Tech at Georgia: The first of the desert bar offerings. Georgia - read Mark Richt - has been catching hell following the thorough trashing they got from the Gators. Even the Great Eyeball Scandal (was he trying to blind him or merely adjusting his contacts?), could not hide the fact that the Dawgs defense was just terrible and the offense not far behind. However, all will be good between the hedges as they vent their frustrations on the Golden Eagles.
Eastern Kentucky at Kentucky: The second of the soft treats on the menu this week. The Wildcats cost me one of my missed picks last week when they let the MSU Bulldogs thump them on their home field. Make it up to the home fans by inviting the Colonels in for easy whipping. FCS meet SEC.
Furman at Auburn: The Tigers are coming off a complete beating of the Ole Miss Rebs last week, and the love fest will continue at home this week. If Auburn can play the same level of defense from week to week, they will give some folks some headaches (Bama) before the season ends. However, this week will not be a big test and everybody gets to play.
LSU at Bama: OK, this is the BIG ONE for the week. This game could not only be the decider for the SEC West, but also has major implications for the BCS picture. There will most assuredly be folks in Cincy, Boise, Ames, and Fort Worth closely watching this game.
I have wrestled with how to approach this game for a couple of weeks now. LSU's offense has looked much improved in the past couple of weeks after underachieving early on. However, that has been against the likes of Tulane and an inconsitent Auburn. Alabama's offense started off hot, has since sputtered. Outside of Mark Ingram, it has been non-existent the past two weeks. LSU's defense has looked good, and at times, really good. Bama's D has been outstanding all season long.
So what we end up with is two not-so-great offenses squaring-off against two good defenses. And while it may be a tired old cliche, this game will ultimately be decided in the trenches.
Both teams have had to cobble together new O-lines this season. Bama had to replace two all conference lineman and LSU had to find replacements for two NFL draftees. In the early going, Bama seemed to have recovered nicely and the O-line looked strong in the run and pass protection. However, in the past few games the pass protection has looked suspect and paving the way for the running game has become increasingly difficult as opposing teams load the box to stop Ingram. However, they have done well enough to allow Ingram to rack-up over 1,000 yards so far, and the team has 1,734 net rushing yards total. And while McElroy has been hurried quite a bit of late, the line has given up only 8 sacks in 8 games.
The Tigers' O-line has not been as kind to their QB Jefferson as they have given up 23 sacks this season. Their net rushing totals have also been non-typical for the Tigers as they only have 1,132 yards and rank 69th in the nation in rushing. RB Charles Scott has also been held to an uncharacteristic 459 net yards and only 4 TD's.
So in the battle of the Big Uglies, I see it this way: LSU's defensive line and Bama's Offensive line matchup looks to be a draw. Neither one has been dominate, but both have played well at times. That being the case, the big matchup will be how the Tiger's offensive line fares against the Bama defensive front 7. Judging from LSU's tendency to give up sacks and lack of a consistent running game, I think Alabama has the edge in this slugfest. The Bama defense has been murder on the run this year and has made some pretty good QB's look very average. However, this could be the best offensive line the defense has faced and certainly the most talented corp of WR's. But if the Bama defense can frustrate the Tiger's offense, and give the offense some short fields to work with, then I believe Ingram will be able to make some plays.
As a side note, this game could very well come down to special teams play. Both teams sport exceptional kick/punt returners in Javier Arenas (Bama) and Trindon Holliday (LSU). Either player could be a game breaker. If it comes down to place kickers, the Tide has a slight advantage with Leigh Tiffin - if for no other reason than he has had plenty of practice this season.
Regardless of the outcome, I believe this will be a hard fought and emotional contest for both teams. Bama is trying to protect their BCS & SEC hopes and the Tigers are trying to improve theirs. Both teams will be laying it all out in this one and 9-6 game would not surprise me in the least. Let the shouts of "Homer!" begin, but Bama is 8-0 for a reason. I think the Tide has just enough of an edge that they manage to get the win.
Memphis at Tennessee: Another SEC team visiting the desert bar. Tennessee will easily skin these Tigers.
Vandy at Florida: Last week was bad for Vandy as they got whacked by Georgia Tech. It don't get any better this week as they travel to the Swamp to meet the Gators. No doubts about this one - even without Spikes, the Gators will easily "gouge" (sorry I just couldn't resist) the Commodores.
Northern Arizona at Ole Miss: The Rebs get to feast on a soft FCS opponent this week. The good news is they should look pretty good in this game. A team called the Lumberjacks will obviously not meet the dress code standards of the fashion-conscience crowd at The Grove.
Now for the Next Best Three. This week we have two big conference game and one REALLY big conference throw-down.
As usual, these games are chosen from suggestions by various FN posters.
Oregon at Stanford: The Quack Attack is coming off a huge win last week that might have signaled a change in the pecking order in the PAC 10. This week they can't let up as they have to face an improving Stanford team that has played better than their record would indicate. Freshmen QB Andrew Luck has been impressive this season having already thrown for 1825 yards and 9 TDs. Toby Gerhart is a bruising RB that has pounded out 994 yards this season. However, the weakness for the Cardinal is their defense and they have to face one of the hottest offenses in the country. Oregon's offense looked nothing short of spectacular in shredding a good USC defense last week, and they shouldn't have much trouble doing the same to the not-quite-ready-for-primetime Cardinal.
Ohio State at Penn State: Defense, Defense, Defense. Two of the nations top-ranked defenses square off this week in what has become an annual epic Big 10 battle. Not only are these two teams very evenly matched defensively, both offenses live and die by the play of their QBs - who both have very different styles.
OSU QB Terrelle Pryor has had an up-and-down season this year. Yet, he has still managed to amass 1543 yards passing and 13 TDs thru the air. He also brings another dimension to the Buckeye attack in his ability to run the ball (he has 554 yards rushing) and utilize his speed to make big plays. In my opinion, Pryor is most dangerous when he is improvising and reacting. Facing a fast and talented group of PSU LBs he will surely need all speed he can muster. But a cool and confident Pryor is a defensive coordinator's worst nightmare.
Daryll Clark might not beat you with his feet, but he sure as hell can beat you with his arm. Clark has 2158 yards and 18 TDs this season and has a very dangerous pair of receivers in Derek Moye and Chaz Powell. Moye already has 648 yards in receptions and averages 16.6 YPC on 39 receptions. Powell has a 14.1 YPC with 25 catches. This trio can lull you with short game and then suddenly torch a defense for the big play. The Buckeye secondary will be tested early and often.
Considering that both teams play exceptional defense, this game could come down to just a few crucial areas:
1. PSU needs to get Evan Royster some running room. A decent running threat will open up the play action passing as well as slow down the pass rush. Giving the accurate Clark plenty of time to throw could be a very bad thing for the OSU defense.
2. OSU needs to get Pryor on the edges. With his speed, Pryor is very dangerous if he breaks containment and can use either his arm or feet. Rolling Pryor out helps slow the rush and I think helps with his decision making. It also will put a lot of pressure on the PSU secondary if they also have to aid in run support.
3. Conversely, the Nittany Lions have to get Pryor out of his comfort zone. Bring the heat, but be sure to also play contain. Disguise the coverages, and make him have to work his progressions. Slow down his reactions. If they can do this, then the Buckeye offense becomes much more pedestrian.
4. This one will come down to the big men in the front lines. Both O-lines are facing their toughest challenges to date and deciding the outcome may very well be as simple as who can push who around.
With all of this in mind, I have to give the edge to Penn State in this one. I think that their defensive front is slightly better than OSU's and the senior Clark is a steadier hand at guiding his offense. To me, OSU is just too dependent on the rise and fall of Pryor. Plus there will be a loud and packed house in Happy Valley. However, if I were a betting man, I would definitely take the "under" on this game.
U Conn at Cincy: In my opinion, the Bearcats have the best chance of any of the other current unbeaten teams to work their way into the NCG. But to get there, they are going to have to deal with a Huskie team that has shown a lot of heart and determination in playing through some serious adversity this season.
Cincy has survived the loss of their star QB Tony Pike, and even flourished with Zach Collaros stepping in. Pike has practiced this week, but Coach Brian Kelly hasn't said for certain which QB will start this game But I would be willing to bet that if the starter stumbles, he would be confident in playing the other. That is a pleasant luxury for any team.
U Conn has had a tough season, losing a teammate and have lost 4 games by margins of four points or less. Now they are facing the Bearcats without starting QB Cody Endres. The hard luck just keeps coming.
While the Huskies have played inspired and with a lot of heart, emotion can only take you so far. This week they will come up short again as the Bearcats just have too much firepower. A Cincy win sets up a very big game with Pitt on December 5th.
That is the way I see it this weekend. Feel free to disagree or point out the error of my logic, but respect the rule of no cheap smack without something to back it up. Bring some facts. Bring some substance to your position. Demonstrate your football knowledge rather than lack of class.
Remember to go ahead and leave your nominations for your Next Best 3 choices for next week. The only rule is that no more than one game per conference. Otherwise, I try to choose games that could have national implications.
For more Big 10 action and a different slant on other games, be sure to check Norka's excellent "The Big 10 and Next Best 3" blog.
To all fans, of all teams: Enjoy the weekend. I wish your teams good luck. And let's all show some class and sportsmanship.